UPDATES AT BOTTOM OF REVIEW
Had this DAC for about 3 hours. To describe it metaphorically it's that school teacher nobody particularly liked but you knew they were exceptionally good at their job. To give you a slight grasp of why my opinion might count to you, I'm not an 'audiophile', I'm 19 and probably going through a stage of loving my gadgets and as fate would have it, good sound. However, I have had the Fiio X3, FiiO X3 Portable MP3 Player
,which uses the same sound chip; I also have an ipod Nano 5th gen which I've had now for 5 years. Also love music, listen to mainly rap, RnB, folk and some alternative rock and a bit of classic - feel free to furrow your brows at my strange taste. I currently have some Fidelio's,Philips Fidelio L1/00 High Fidelity Headband Headphones
, to use with this which are great for my more 'musical' music.
Sound: Because thats what we're here for... if you've not experienced the Wolfson WM8740 chip in a DAC such as the Fiio X3 or IBasso DX50 then you'll be very pleasantly surprised. In comparison to an iPod the clarity is simply exceptional. Separation of instruments is clear, and soundstage opens up nicely. You'll find yourself smiling at your old albums again. I wish I had more headphones, also better headphones to trial this with. With the Fidelio L1's the sound produced through the AK100 is clinical and clean, doesn't have the warmth of the Fiio X3 in comparison. You could say it's more audiophile geared, the sound is I suppose 'how it should be' - which left me smiling a little less than the X3 but also impressed because I've heard a few more clashes of cymbals for example in the background. For music like Bon Iver and classical like Tchaikovsky this unit is preferable for me, you feel every single piece of the performance.
Would completely disagree with other reviewers online that mention this sounding 'warm'... no, don't listen to these people... You could adapt the EQ (if you can work it out that is) to make this more forward sounding and warm but the natural production sound is pretty neutral. If you're after a warm sound go for the X3. I find it hard to describe sound so take the following with a pinch of salt, sound is something you really need to test for yourself i personally believe. I've provided a taste of some songs however. Notably live music sounds fantastic, should the quality of your track allow so anyway.
Ben Howard - Move like you want to (live). Bass guitar, drums, crowd noise all come through on their own separate layers. As soon as Ben starts singing the vocals are forward and sound amazing, I was sat in bed grinning ear to ear which was a magical moment. Could not get bored of this if i tried. Can hear lots of little details like single people in the crowd shouting out in the background which all add to the 'live' performance. I think you'd struggle to feel more there unless you actually were.
Bon Iver - Michicant. If you've heard Bon Iver you'll know that Justin Vernon likes an odd sound. This translates very well on the AK100 and you pick up the layers easily with detectable bell rings and synthetic sounds behind the usual instruments which form the base layer. Voice comes through crisp but I felt bass impact could be better at times, possibly my headphones fault though.
Cypress Hill - Insane in the Membrane. Sounds flat and probably better on my ipod. bass hits are flat and should not sound as flat as they do. Takes a lot of depth away from the song as the backing beat is recognizable as being fantastic. Vocals are good but don't sound very forward on this track.
The Cinematic Orchestra - Familiar Ground. Guitar, Drums, trumpet, piano and backing vocals all merge nicely. Feels quite 'busy' though, like there isn't quite enough separation in the layers at times. Still very nice sounding and the way the balance of the track shifts at times between the right and left ear is very pleasurable and translates well through the AK100.
Kendrick Lamar - M.a.a.D City. Good vocal projection, great depth in the bass which unfortunately my headphones aren't quite geared towards enough, but I can sense its there and would sound good with some V-Moda's for example. Piano is good, separation is good and song is fast moving as it should be, no murkiness.
Design: Nice weight, clean lines. Feels sturdy and high quality, actually quite like the boxy feel. When shaken you can hear the volume rocker rattle very slightly, which is a bit annoying, everything else however makes no noise, no internal rattle etc. Get the feeling the volume rocker may catch things in my pocket and as this has been previously used I can see some scuff marks on here because the thing protrudes from the side. That being said I like the tactile rocker, allows incremental sound change and gives a satisfying click with each notch. Much smaller than originally expected - good news. Side buttons are therefore smaller than expected though in ratio and when changing songs I've realized that I have to look at where i'm pressing because my index finger almost covers all three buttons. Not massively annoying but would have been nice if they were spaced out more.
Software: the UI is actually pleasant for me on first impressions. Compared to the X3 this thing is heaven. Touchscreen is a nice addition and allows you to aptly maneuver through the menu's. Clean and clinical like the sound, everything is simple, possibly overly so. Menu consists of "songs/albums/artists/genres/MQS(mastering quality sound)/Folders". Each takes you into the relevant sub-menu, nothing more to explain there, its then a case of scrolling on-screen to find what you want.
For MQS I believe this is solely for lossless formatting of songs and shows all songs you have on there which consist of such. MP3's (heaven forbid you have any) wont be on there.
For Folders this shows you the names of folders which you've dragged onto the player from your computer. I.E. "FLAC songs" or "AIFF songs" etc.
General speed seems to be good, quite responsive in general.
Only a few niggles at this stage: The on screen volume adjuster would, in theory, be faster at shifting the sound up and down than using the incremental volume rocker on the side. The on screen adjuster however isn't responsive enough and you have to drag your finger across quite slowly for it to register it - annoying.
The back key is in the top left corner and is fairly small, admittedly the screen has limited space but, i have to use a small corner of my thumb to press it successfully. Again annoying but only a small niggle, I can live with this.
Value for money: Hmm, tricky. Considering that the X3 uses the same Wolfson audio chip (which apparently only costs a tenner?!?!) this thing is over double, possibly triple the price, depending on how well you shop around. Can this be quantified by the neutral 'audiophile' sound it produces? I don't think so, the sound is, surprisingly enough, very similar to the X3 which has the same chip.
However with the addition of a nicely finished design, great portability, decent UI compared to the X3 and touchscreen, it might top it IF you have the money and fashion oriented mind to buy this at full price.
Overall: If you are going to buy this full price consider the MKII which has improved impedance levels for most headphones, not too sure what this translates to in non-audiophile language but I assume it basically sounds better. I got this one however for an astoundingly cheap price, about £100 more than the X3, and don't regret it. At this stage, not sure I'd be saying the same if i bought it for list price.
Additional points to note:
1. If you're considering buying the - wait for it- £60 official A&K leather case *wipes sweat from forehead* then I can tell you it does look beautiful and fits snug. Has nice decorative stitching and the embossed A&K on the inside and back. Is it worth £60 - absolutely not. If you have the cash to splash for this player though then maybe money isn't too much of a concern, from an aesthetic point of view, its on the mark.
2. Try and trial this out somewhere, this is a lot of money to spend blindly. Thankfully there is this brilliant company called Amazon that allows a 28 day return policy, use a company with a policy like this and you won't get beat down if you try and return it and its not 'broken'. We've all heard the horror stories.
3. You'd better be using lossless sound with this otherwise you can't even begin to consider buying it, stick with your ipod. I'm not one for endorsing illicit downloads and there aren't many outlets that supply real HD tracks, so make sure you look into what music is available for your taste in a lossless format before buying one of these. You don't want a glorified iPod for half a grand or more. The foolish person I got this off had only MP3's installed when I bought it, I could have cried. No wonder she sold it, she probably thought it was a shambles. Quids in for me.
4. If, like me, you have already owned a similar DAC then I wouldn't say the upgrade is worth it. For me it was perfect because I got rid of my X3 and this player popped up at a bargain price.
Its been about 10 days since I got this. Found a few more points to critique and help you lovely people out with:
Sound - still very enjoyable. Definitely not warm, but clean. This will be brushed upon later. When and if i switch up my headphones i'll update this further. I can't go into too much generalized detail about the player because i haven't used enough headphones with it to draw definitive conclusions.
1. If you buy second hand, make sure you install 'IRiver Plus4' which you'll find in the root folder of the AK100 when you plug it into your computer. This will save you 30 minutes of the almighty struggle of what i had to endure which will be mentioned soon.
2. Album Art is something I happen to really like on my portable players, and with me being a perfectionist I could not stand the fact that this machine is seemingly incapable of providing consist album art. I found when transferring my albums only about 40% had album art which I could see on the player, despite them all being JPEG and all the album art being on each album. It took me half an hour of spilling over forums to try and find out WHY, but nobody else could understand either. I finally found that the only way to do it was to infuriatingly re-encode the FLAC and other lossless format music to include the album art in it. This can be done using Iriver Plus 4 but takes an equally as infuriating amount of time to do. After a good 2 hours of trial and error, scrambling for answers and using Iriver Plus 4 i've only just managed to get about another 30% of my album art on. This is such a non-issue that is really irksome and could probably be easily rectified by Iriver, but apparently version 2.4 Firmware which i have installed is the last update. Not great Iriver. The programme is also incredibly 'buggy' and stopped working numerous times when adding album art adding fuel to this angry man's fire.
3. Besides the Album Art scandal I've come to the conclusion that the software is generally under developed and could be smoother. There are no pre-set EQ setting and unless you can draw out some funky pattern that happens to translate to some brilliant sound I cant really decipher how it could work well. I just want an option to increase the bass for my rap tracks and an option to revert this back to a flat EQ when i'm listening to my delicate songs.
4. Widely speaking the AK100 lacks fluidity in its software and sometimes doesn't register your finger when you touch the screen. Little things like this slowly become more apparent and noticeable.
5. I'm not sure yet how well the pairing of my AK100 and Fidelio headphones are. My only comparison marker was my X3 which i used the same headphones for. Perhaps with different headphones the pairing will be amazing, and I'll have to re-draft the part of this review. When and if I get the Sennheiser HD650's (please santa please) I'll provide another update as to the differences in sound. The Fidelio's are not incredibly hard to drive so I need something with more umph to really push this little machine and get the revs going. This should be interesting.
6. I've subconsciously voided the use of the tactile side buttons, they're too close together and I still have to check what I'm pressing. Also, perhaps this is me being an idiot but i'd be happy to hear any comments, it seems that Iriver have got the keys in a bit of a pickle. For example, if i was to change a song on any other device i would click >> which would take me to the next song, and << for the previous. The AK100 has an 'up arrow' and a 'down arrow', above and below the pause/play button. This is annoying because usually >> are above and << are below. When playing a song, if you click the 'up arrow' you automatically assume this will take you to the next song, but it doesn't, it takes you to the previous. THIS IS ANNOYING. Same for the down arrow, if I click this i expect to re-start the song or go back, but it takes me to the next track! They should have stuck to the universally known >> and << not some quirky up down buttons. It's just vexing to know this could have been avoided.
Ten days in i'm still enjoying the sound and really wanting to love this thing. But at the end of the day, I think i prefer the sound of the X3! Maybe i have this romanticized idea of how it sounded in my head, but i remember enjoying the warmth much more and it adding more character to my songs. The AK100 is still this precision beast, fantastic with classical, jazz and acoustic but its not as 'listenable' so to speak and not as universal for all genres as the X3 was. Despite the clean audio it sounds flat at times and can become tiresome much faster than the X3 did. I don't miss the god awful aesthetics of the X3 and even worse software (although at least it got album art right!) but at the end of the day I'm here for sound, and everything else is almost dismissable. That being said I've brought the review down to 4/5 because the price you pay for this is in anticipation of something better than the X3 and DX50, in theory you're paying 3x more for something which should be 3x as good! They all use the same sound chip, and differences in quality and software and tech support and sound signature all come together to differentiate a product from its competitors. If its not 3x as good for the combination of these factors it's not worth it for me, and I don't think the asking price fits the bill. I can't kick my feet for the price I paid, but I'd be looking at my bank balance with a big reversed grin if I'd have paid full whack after getting rid of my X3.